The sky is glowing an iridescent blue like a Maxfield Parrish painting, with twisty silhouettes of tree branches reaching high to patches of leaves. A slight swaying in the trees draws my eye to the distant gay mountain, where a few stars glow in the still-darkened sky. Morning has broken.
In my junior year of high school, I was somewhat lost and confused. I had one interest only, being a DJ on a local college station with no listeners, populated by nerds like me who loved the idea of being on the radio even though we were talking to the wall.
Grades were never my strong suit, and college wasn’t on my radar because a career in radio was already my plan. I loved the attention, and stardom, in the form of radio, was what I was looking for.
But Carolyn Parsons had a different vision for me. She was my Humanities teacher, in a class that I struggled with. She was as hard on me as anyone ever was. “Get your act together, Rhoads, you’re better than this,” she would say. Though my star may have been shining among my friends, nothing I could do would please “Mrs. P.,” who was known to be the toughest teacher in the school.
She pushed and pushed. I felt hassled and abused, but she did not let up. I even told my parents, who did nothing. Dad would say, “Son, be the best you can be. Listen to the people around you, and try to see their perspective.”
For the end of the year, we were to have a major project, something to present to the class. We each got half of the class time over about 15 days. I needed to come up with a poem, a story, or something, but I could not. But Mrs. P. would not let up.
“Surely you can do something well, Rhoads. You need to find it.” But I had no idea what it would be. The pressure was on — I was on in a week. I had already seen many other presentations. Some were great, others not so great, and the bad ones got hammered. I did not want that embarrassment.
One day it came to me … what do I really love? I love audio, I love music, and I love photography. So I decided to come up with a multimedia slideshow. Simply put, a slideshow set to music.
I worked feverishly to take photographs that were artsy, that told a story, and set them to the Cat Stevens tune “Morning Has Broken.” Shots of sunrises, sunsets, graveyards, sad people and happy people. Everything had a yellow theme to it, as if silhouetted before glowing yellow skies.
I fine-tuned, practiced — and I was scared. But at presentation time, I pulled it off. The lights were low, and I looked up to find Mrs. P. standing and clapping, with tears in her eyes. I had broken through.
Her tears were probably not about the quality of my presentation; they were a celebration that her toughest, hardest-to-deal-with student had come through.
She changed my life forever by finding something within me I didn’t know I had.
I dedicated a book to her many years later, and I sent it to her with a note about her impact. I never saw her again, but she lives in my heart as the woman who cared enough to badger me to live to a high standard.
Carolyn Parsons wasn’t my mom. But she played a significant role, seeing things in me others did not see.
In today’s culture, where everyone needs a trophy, her methods might be frowned upon. But there is value in pushing people to some breaking point where they find themselves. Otherwise they may never get there.
Today, as we honor moms everywhere, we need to remember that we all have different styles and approaches. My mom never pushed me, but she nurtured me. My dad encouraged me. But others in my life stood up to play roles that they saw needed to be played in my life. It’s a community effort to raise children. I think we sometimes forget that.
I would have turned out OK, but Mrs. Parsons challenged me, and pulled out a creative side. I’m sure it would have been easier to let me fail. Instead, she cared enough to push me.
Motherhood isn’t always about nurturing. A great mom (or dad) always sees things we can’t see in ourselves. Sometimes they nag and push and tell us to brush our teeth. But it’s not about clean teeth or clean clothes, it’s about self-discipline that impacts every detail of our lives.
Being a dad isn’t easy, either; we have our own role to play. And I have huge respect for those who juggle the job of being both mom and dad. I often lose respect for those who bail out and leave their kids to figure it out on their own. No kid deserves that. There is no room for selfishness when raising children; one hangs in there, no matter what. But that’s an unpopular opinion today. Anything goes.
Today, as a tribute to your mom, think back to the times she annoyed you, pushed you, and held you to higher standards … and be grateful. Being a mom isn’t easy, and being tough isn’t popular, especially when you’re on the receiving end. But it’s so necessary.
Happy Mother’s Day.
P.S. My mom died three years ago this week.I miss her and my dad daily. Embrace the ones you still have, no matter how much fault you can find with them. One day they’ll be gone.
Next week I’m off to host the Plein Air Convention in Denver. People ask if I’m excited, and the answer is, “Absolutely!” Can’t wait. See you there?